Nechama Liss-Levinson wrote an impassioned piece in these pages last week, demanding of the rabbi at the Ramaz School (her daughter’s alma mater), “Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, How Can You Shill for Donald Trump at Republican Convention?”
Liss-Levinson, a Manhattan psychologist, has presumably never attended a political convention, either Democratic or Republican. If she had, she might have better understood Lookstein’s role in such a space. And if she and other parents of Ramaz alumni and other liberal Jews had not pressured Lookstein to withdraw, he might have used his opportunity to truly great effect.
A Lookstein speech to the RNC could and would have been many things: uplifting, soul-edifying, even sassy. But guilty of shilling? No way.
Lookstein, like Rabbi Meir Soloveichik before him, was tapped to deliver the invocation at the RNC this year due to his relationship with Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump-Kushner. In addition to being her conversion rabbi, Lookstein has maintained a close relationship with the Kushner family and he is the rabbi at their home synagogue. When I asked Lookstein last year to connect me with Ivanka for a piece I hoped to write, I was kindly but firmly rebuked; it’s clear to me that the families have a connection that transcends the political and is filled with warmth and mutual respect. It’s no wonder that Ivanka wanted her own rabbi to represent American Jewry to the world at the RNC.
Despite that personal relationship, however, Lookstein isn’t just “Ivanka’s rabbi,” as he has been described in many news stories about the RNC and about the brouhaha over his convert’s status in Israel this past week. That fundamental misunderstanding about Lookstein’s history and career is largely to blame for his former students’ and congregants’ decision to petition him to withdraw from his speaking gig.
Lookstein has been the rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun since 1958 and he has served as principal of the Ramaz School since 1966. He is the vice president of the powerful Beit Din of America and is a commissioner of the New York City Human Rights Commission. His long and storied career includes activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry. He organized rallies for them, defending their basic human rights. Many say Lookstein played an instrumental role in freeing Natan Sharansky (now the chairman of the Jewish Agency) while he was imprisoned in Soviet Russia.
Anyone familiar with the career of Lookstein should have known better than to think that he would kowtow to the likes of the Trumps by shilling at the RNC. Sure, he has a personal relationship with The Donald’s daughter, but that hardly means he’s comfortable with the messages that the Trump campaign has been sending for the past year. He’s fully aware that this campaign has been marked by accusations of anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant bigotry and more. He knows that a Trump presidency would see a great number of freedoms curtailed, including for Muslims and for members of the press.
How do I know that he knows this? When pressure from Ramaz alumni and others led Lookstein to withdraw from speaking at the RNC, he released the remarks that he had planned to deliver in Cleveland. If given the chance, he would have said:
We thank you for our constitutional government that has created and fostered the American ideals of democracy, freedom, justice and equality for all, regardless of race, religion, or national origin. Almighty God: We know that we are living in very dangerous times, when all of these blessings are threatened from without, by forces of terror and unimaginable brutality, and from within, by those who sow the seeds of bigotry, hatred and violence, putting our lives and our way of life at risk.
Had Lookstein been permitted to deliver this invocation as planned and written, it would have been an incredibly sassy move (if I can use such an adjective when referring to an 83-year-old man). For him to stand on the RNC stage and deplore the tactics of Trump, a man who has done more to tear this country and his own party apart than any other politician in modern memory, would have been a sight to behold.
Sadly for the Republicans present, and for all those who might have watched the subsequent coverage on air, we won’t hear the important message that Lookstein would have delivered.
He was prevented from delivering it by individuals unfamiliar with the important role that rabbis have played by delivering invocations at every major political event on both sides of the aisle, who appear to provide a Jewish voice and perspective, not to shill for the candidate of the moment. (Something tells me that whichever rabbi the Democratic National Convention taps as invocation speaker this year won’t be accused of being a shill for Hillary Clinton.) These individuals likely also don’t remember the controversy surrounding Lookstein’s decision to deliver an invocation at the National Cathedral upon the inauguration of President Obama, which led to a rebuke from the Rabbinical Council of America.
If you’ve got even passing familiarity with Lookstein’s beliefs and career, and not just with the headlines about one woman (out of hundreds) whom he converted, you must realize that he had some tricks up his sleeve.
Haskel Lookstein is many things, but a stooge for bigots is not one of them.
Too bad American Jews didn’t give him more credit.
Bethany Mandel writes on politics and culture, usually from a conservative perspective. Follow her on Twitter @BethanyShondark